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Sunday
Sep212014

Another Shade of Reality: Utopia

What say we review Utopia from a disgruntled Big Brother viewer’s perspective? No? What, do you think #BB16 is providing worthwhile live feed viewing today? Okay, gotcha on that one.

This post is long, I admit. But if you’re reading this during business hours, stare at your screen and furrow your brow such that colleagues who wander by will assume you’re very busy with important things.

Consider the very basics: Why do we watch television?

Highly watchable characters, whether or not we like them as people, are what draw us to television. When we identify with characters, we just have to know what happens to them ... so we never miss an episode, whatever the show.

This show's format worked so remarkably well that its characters were interchangeable.TV has also given us formats which are so compelling that we tune in episode after episode even with only tenuous personal connections to the people.

It’s just a few days from the Big Brother 16 season finale ... and I honestly don’t care who wins. The people I especially wanted not to win (Devin, Frankie, and Caleb) got evicted, and the people I half-heartedly followed (Donny and Zach) are long gone as well. No house guest emerged as my favorite this season, and I’m wondering if watching amounted to wasted effort.

What makes any show worth watching? Likable characters and/or compelling formats. Or vice versa. Plenty of shows are highly watchable when central characters are well-written even if they’re people we’d avoid in real life.

It was easy to get invested in Walter White.Think of Breaking Bad's Walter White. This guy was an underpaid under-appreciated high school chemistry teacher with a wife, a kid, a junky car, an ordinary middle-class house in suburbia, and a life savings of only a few thousand dollars. Who among us can't identify with Walter? It made him likable and compelling from the very first episode -- enough so that we wanted to follow his (mis)adventures to the very end, even as his misanthropic selfishness vanquished his humanity.

Or think Tony Soprano. Despite being ruthless, evil, and utterly devoid of moral restraint in the running of his business affairs, Tony's struggle with mental health, his love for his children (misguided though his expressions of love sometimes were), and his intense desire to achieve and gain more (more wealth, more respect, more recognition, more validation) gave us a personal connection to his ... I'll call it his unique humanity. We laughed and cried with him. We rooted for him. We wanted him to win.

You didn't have to like Tony Soprano or his crew. But you couldn't not watch.Or how about compelling formats? Law and Order aired for 20 years and spawned numerous successful spinoffs despite having a revolving cast who played characters with little depth. The format itself proved compelling and long-lasting: Investigate a crime, catch the bad guy(s), take them to court, and reveal the winner (the cops & attorneys or the accused).

Popular daily game shows -- think Price Is Right and Jeopardy -- are similarly compelling because we understand the format and, by playing along, feel like we're part of it.

We have written much here at Big Brother Gossip about why #BB16 was disappointing. House guests who outright failed to play the game (including some who barely understood what was happening), predictable competitions, ridiculous twists which served only to make a tired format even less compelling, stunt casting, etc. #ExpectTheExpected week after week.

Could a new American reality show shake things up for CBS’s Big Brother? That’s exactly what we’re wondering about Fox’s new Utopia. Isolated from the outside world on several acres in the country, 14 people from wildly diverse backgrounds are trying to build a new society from scratch, starting with only a barn, plantable land, a $5000 start-up budget, and no modern amenities (at first, not even a toilet). There are 24/7 live feeds (some free, some paid) and televised recap episodes on Tuesdays and Fridays.

But there are no competitions. There is no grand prize. There will be no winner. That, to me, makes the format questionable. So are the people likable? Is there something which makes this program compelling? If you’ll pardon the Big Brother pun, the jury’s still out.

Utopia's five acre compound.The predominating feeling I had after watching Utopia’s first two episodes was that irrational anger does not make for good entertainment. It was anger loudly on display by unlikable people. It was puzzling, actually. When you find yourself amongst a group of strangers with whom you know you'll be spending some time, aren't you usually on your best behavior for a while? I found myself wondering if Utopia's producers engineered the conflict (a la Big Brother), misguidedly thinking it would make for better TV.

In your face! The majority of the men were arguing, sometimes violently, in the first day they were there.It didn’t. In fact, for me, the conflict had the opposite effect: I might not stick around to find out if anybody is likable / relatable (as Walter White was) or at least compelling (Tony Soprano). Absence of conflict would be off-putting too -- but until we find a reason to watch a show, its characters should avoid motivating us to change channels.

So if the people are (potentially) repelling, is Utopia’s format compelling? Not yet sure about that, either.

Utopia is somewhat like a "My Summer Camping Trip" home movie, albeit one obviously produced with professional-grade video cameras. But who wants to watch camping trips in slow motion on TV? They tried to create drama over the notion of running out of money, but viewers won't care. (Name for me, please, one viewer anywhere who thinks they will be allowed to starve on national television. They've already aired paramedics and doctors visiting on multiple occasions.)

Utopians celebrate newly-run electricity in the barn.Utopia had a beginning ... but there's no discernible middle or end on the way in a few weeks or months for viewers to look forward to. That's a huge problem. We are conditioned by Big Brother (not to mention scripted TV and another major televised competition thing which seems to be catching on -- I think they call it football) to earn the reward of a "winner" when we invest viewing time. And characters (or teams) to root for or bemoan along the way.

There are no Big Brother- or Survivor-style competitions on Utopia. Watching people plant gardens (or not), milk cows, raise chickens (or argue about dead ones), and sit around outside is dull. (Big Brother's annually-repeated predictable comps are dull for different reasons. But each has a beginning and end, loser and winner, enabling viewers to feel like they've accomplished something in the watching.)

It also occurs to me that there is a basic dichotomy between Utopia and the TV network on which it's airing. The Utopians, we are told, are there to build an ideal society from scratch. They must set aside their many differences ultimately to come together in harmony toward common goals.

Hanging around outside.But if there is a major television network (family of networks) whose brand image is the antithesis of societal harmony, which one immediately comes to mind? Right. Fox is entirely about dividing the country, not about bringing us together. Fox fosters the lack of basic civility in our national conversation and then they televise it and profit from it.

Why on earth is this show on Fox? Shouldn't it be on a channel like TLC, Discovery, Oprah Winfrey Network, PBS, or any channel known for documentaries? TLC was once known as "The Learning Channel" before it veered into quasi-reality faire such as Kate Plus 8, Extreme Couponing, Sister Wives, and LA Ink. If they could possibly clear time by canceling drivel like Toddlers & Tiaras and Honey Boo Boo, each of which destroys human dignity in its own unique way, TLC might have a theme-fitting show in Utopia -- one whose premise, at least, is worth consideration.

Indeed, I do find a few redeeming qualities to Utopia. There are people from all walks of life (city, country, presumed varying levels of education and access to money), and many ethnicities are represented. The conflict I've seen so far seems to have been based on their controversial behavior and differences in ideas or their implementation, not on personal backgrounds. That's an important silver lining to Utopia's odd drama.

I like that religion and faith are represented but also that secularism and atheism are there too -- and that while these Utopians are clearly welcome to discover new expressions of spirituality (there was a Christian baptism, for example), the disinterested seem to remain welcome members of the tribe.

It is refreshing that there is a greater (if less than total) acceptance of the human body. Many Utopians have found a European or dare we say aboriginal comfort with the notion that at times clothing is neither warranted nor practical, e.g. when swimming or when neither the climate nor the specific activity requires its protective qualities. American society is paradoxical and puritanical about nudity. We are completely desensitized to death and violence in media ... but simple non-sexual, non-lewd nudity makes people crazy.

Example: Do you remember that when Titanic arrived in movie theaters, Americans made far more of a fuss over their children seeing a momentary glimpse of Kate Winslet's breast than they did over their children seeing graphic depictions of the horrific deaths of a thousand people? I digress, but get your priorities straight, people.

Regardless of Utopia's harmless nudity, media pounced on it as controversial. Fox undoubtedly welcomed the publicity.And although I complain that Utopia is basically "televised camping," the outdoor environment is nice. The setting itself provides a welcome departure from the endless city streets / urban decay / guns / screaming sirens / death / destruction that usually fill primetime television.

I am not convinced that Utopia’s format is fundamentally flawed or that the show will not find a following if Fox sticks with it long enough. But neither the show’s first few episodes nor the network on which it’s being aired bode well for Utopia’s longevity, in my view. Although DVR viewership has helped, ratings haven't been kind so far. Repeats on other networks had more viewers than new Utopia episodes, and Fox could dump Utopia when its baseball coverage disrupts the schedule next month (if not sooner).

Reality fans who like the “isolate people outside of the real world” genre might be stuck only with a 2015 edition of Big Brother’s tired format.

More Utopia reading: A writer got to visit the Utopia compound before the cast arrived. Also, Slate.com’s Utopia review delves brilliantly into the initial cast and the conflicts of their first few days.

Big Brother Australia just started its 2014 season a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been enjoying it. What could CBS learn from #BBAU? I’m planning to write about that in a few days. Share your thoughts about Utopia in the comments below or @uselesstraffic.

Saturday
Sep202014

Big Brother Gossip Show #414: Finale

Thankfully, this season comes to an end this week, so tonight's show is our big finale. We talk about the evictions of Frankie and Caleb, the first two of three final competitions, along with some overall thoughts of the season.

While all three of us are disappointed with the season, we feel that this is the best season of the Big Brother Gossip Show. For that I thank Colette and Mike, along wth Ash for her help with audio. We all thank all of you for listening to us this season, and we hope we entertained you.

Grab this via my The Ledge app, Stitcher, or iTunes...and leave us a review! You can also grab a direct download HERE

Wednesday
Sep172014

The Night Owl - Weds Night

Well, Frankie was evicted on Tuesday's show (technically Monday afternoon) and Caleb followed right after him tonight leaving your final 3 as Victoria, Cody, and Derrick.

Shortly after the live show went off, the HGs started to prepare for the first part of the final HOH comp, and shortly after that feeds cut for a while and then came back to the endurance comp being played out on the feeds. The comp was the wall that Caleb has talked about all season.  He just barely missed getting to play in it.  The setup was made to look like they were hang gliding. Each HG was holding on to a hang gliding bar and standing on a small-ish ledge.  Victoria did not last long at all and was off shortly after the wall started tilting.  Derrick and Cody then started talking about which one of them should win the comp.  Derrick tried a little reverse psych on Cody trying to get him to throw the comp, but it did not work. Derrick told Cody he didn't feel confident he could beat Victoria in part 2 of the competition, where as he knows that Cody knows all the days, numbers, wins etc..  No deal, Cody stayed on and Derrick came off a few minutes later making Cody the winner of the first part of the final HOH.

I'm not sure exactly when the second part of the final HOH will be played, but if I had to guess I would say Saturday afternoon.  I think that's when they usually play it if I remember correctly.  Victoria and Derrick will be facing off, and unless he just really decides he wants to throw it (which I don't think is happening) I'm certain Derrick will win. That will just leave he and Cody to face off on the final part of the HOH comp on finale night, and at this point I am positive both will stay true to each other and take each other to the final 2. 

So that's where things stand right now. There probably won't be much to report in the next few days. At this point I don't see many scenarios in which Derrick will not win the game.  He has played well, and I think most of the jury if not all of them realize that. I will update again after we find out who wins part 2.  Until then...

Wednesday
Sep172014

Big Brother Season 16, Episode 38 Recap

Today was such a beautiful day! The reason for such a perfect day? It really has to be the fact that today is Day 1 AF (After Frankie). Last night, our summer long nightmare finally ended as Cody and Derrick finally had the guts and smarts to eliminate the most annoying presence in Big Brother history. Good job, boys, even if Caleb’s big mouth threatened to ruin the evening.

So tonight we narrow the field down to this season’s final three. Who will survive? We know that Derrick has a place in the finals thanks to his HOH victory last night. Will Cody have called somebody out for the last time this year? Wait, he’s only threatened to do that. Will Caleb go beastmode on somebody’s ass? Will Victoria pull out the most shocking veto win of the season? Let’s find out!

After Julie’s intro, tonight’s episode commences with a look back at the moment Frankie left. They all kind of make fun of him, and Derrick explains that “it was tiem to let him go”. We then see Frankie ask Derrick about whether he’d stay 5 ½ hours before the taping. Derrick tells him that he’s going, and adds he can’t lie to him. Hmmm, complete with “tragedy” music. Frankie begins crying, and thanks Derrick. When told he’s “the best player in the game”, Frankie replies, “I know.” Ugh.

It’s now four hours before the eviction, and all of the boys are telling Frankie why he’s being evicted. Wait, why are they showing this? Our national nightmare is supposed to be over! As always, Frankie makes it about himself and says that by evicting him they have “created the most powerful person in this game”. Oh Lord. He’s being “reconnected with his millions of followers” (wtf?), and the jury. “Let’s face it. Whose the most convincing speaker in this house?” Victoria? Oh, it’s Frankie, who will “singlehandedly pick the winner of this game”. Caleb tells him to shut up, and Cody also disagrees. “You’re not Jesus in this house.” Caleb points out that everybody in the house has also been playing, and thinks he’d “smoke him” if they were the final two. Ok, now this is getting good. Derrick perks up, and says that he respects all of them as players.

We jump ahead to Derrick’s HOH win, and he’s (obviously) “ecstatic”. Back in the house, Cody is frustrated that he lost due to the last question. He just has to win the POV.

Derrick is upstairs, and the hollas begin playing again, including some from his wife and daughter. Cue the piano music! Obviously, he’s a proud papa, and it’s actually a nice moment.

The boys leave, and Derrick tells Victoria that she doesn’t have to campaign to him. He then talks in the diary room about how he has to say the right things to all three of them, as he’s promised final two deals with them all. Derrick reminds her that they still have to pretend to hate each other, and that she has to go on the block again. Victoria is proud of her work as an actress, and is confident that she’s not going anywhere.

Cody then comes up, and Derrick decides to let him decide if he goes up this time. He’s reminded that they have to win the veto to ensure they are final two. Caleb is going to be the target.

Caleb comes up, and he has to convince him to go up this time. “It doesn’t matter who I put up.” This is an unfair meeting of the minds, and Derrick talks circles around Beastmode’s feeble brain. “I don’t care, man”, he finally says. “Put me up if you want.” Ha! That didn’t take long.

With that, we move to the nominations ceremony. Yep, it’s Victoria and Caleb, who pretends to be mad and gives a fake karate chop to Derrick. There’s some dumb speeches, and Derrick tells Caleb to “crush” the veto. Let’s move on to the important stuff.

After commercials, we get some filler idiocy about Caleb. You know, the usual stuff about how he is going to be famous. We then go meet his family. Fast forward time.

More commercials, and we then get the veto competition. Oh wait, it’s the “most important veto comp of the summer”. You know, more important than last night’s, or the week before. This comp is a promo for the upcoming terrible show, Stalker, so it should be a natural for Caleb. They all have a “crime board puzzle”, and they have to match the clues to pictures of the cast. The first to put all the photos in the correct spot wins.

One doesn’t even have to really watch to know what happens here. Derrick is going to throw it, while Caleb and Victoria don’t have the brains to complete it. Yep, this is Cody’s to win...and he does. (BTW, the diary room voice overs are painful to endure.) Caleb, though, still believes he’s safe.

Then there’s another wait to promote the horrific CBS fall lineup before we get to the veto ceremony and eviction. Wait, we get more house footage before that??? Come on, let’s get to it!

The boys jump around in celebration, and Caleb is convinced that he’s staying. Derrick is starting to feel guilty, but he says that the “loves his family a bit more”. Caleb continues to babble on about loyalty after Derrick walks away. Cody says in the diary room that he’s not really paying attention, as Caleb is “no longer needed”.

And there’s even more commercials!!! Hey Ms Chen, can we hurry this along? Ok, here we go. Hahaha, they have audio issues and can’t hear Julie! This is awesome! It’s fixed, and it’s clear that Caleb now understands what’s happening. He’s not happy.

There’s no actual veto ceremony as there’s no replacement nominee available. Victoria is asked if she has anybody left to thank after nine nominations, and she doesn’t quite get that it’s her turn to stand up. It’s her typical useless speech. Caleb starts off by thanking God, and the troops and family. “At the end of the day”...blah blah blah. He talks about loyalty, and how they’re safe because of him. Victoria shoots him an evil glance when Caleb says that she hasn’t had a chance to show loyalty as she has yet to win anything. POW!!!

Cody is then asked to make the sole vote, and he says that both of them have been loyal to him. He then says that Derrick made a final two deal with him on day two called the “Hitmen”, and that they’re decision on who to evict is to help make them get to final two. Caleb is then evicted.

An obviously angry Caleb hugs everybody, and heads out to cheers. Julie asks what’s going through his mind, and Caleb says that you “have to expect things of this nature to happen”. He throws out a “Beastmode”, and Julie asks why he’s most disappointed in Derrick. Again, the answer makes no sense. Julie follows it up by asking if loyalty, including volunteering to be nominated four time, “cost” him the game, and Caleb says that’s possible. He’s also asked if he regrets evicting Frankie, and Caleb (thankfully) says no way, and that he “showed a lot about his character that day”. He “tooted his own horn” the whole game.

Goodbye messages are then played, and Caleb is gone. Goodbye, Beastmode. It’s been an experience.

There’s a few minutes left in the show, so we go back to the house one last time after Julie runs through the schedule of the last two episodes. Oh wait, there’s no chatter, just a camera as they open a bottle of champagne to celebrate making the final three.

So that’s it! Are you happy with the eviction of Beastmode? Were you annoyed that somehow they found room for more Frankie footage? Tell us what you think!